Let’s do something together!

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Hello, I’m Julien. Strasbourg-born, Paris-trained, Italian-blooded, now based in Melbourne and working across Australia, Sweden and China, I am closely attuned to the many subtle ways that cultural and linguistic diversity translates as difference in perceptions, emotions, behaviours and value systems.

As a writer and educator, my work aims to discern and articulate the various manifestations of this diversity, invent better ways to realise that our worlds are different – and rejoice in the possibility to find common ground.

I currently share my time between three main activities:

  • I work as editor-in-chief with the Global Challenges Foundation, a Swedish philanthropic Foundation that aims to stimulate a better understanding of global catastrophic risk, and catalize new global governance models to address those risks.
  • I design and deliver new workshop models with the Marco Polo Project, a non-profit organisation exploring new models to develop cross-cultural understanding.
  •  I am enrolled in a PhD with Monash University, exploring the emerging digital ecosystem of Chinese language learning.

You can read some of my reflections here – or browse through my portfolio to look at my writing, film and curation work.

I offer coaching services, workshops, public speaking, and support for new projects. Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with a broad range of organisations on cutting-edge cross-cultural initiatives. I am always open to new projects and opportunities, and would love to discuss them with you.

Let’s do something together! You can reach me at Julien.leyre at gmail.com.

 

On landscapes and memories

The first time I took a train down from Beijing to Shanghai, one particular spot triggered a strong emotional reaction. It’s a range of mid-sized mountains, dragged at the top, some white stone exposed, dark pine or cypress trees dotting the flanks, among lower, yellower, shorter bushes. I have since gone through this pass a number of times. It stretches from Jinan to Tai’an, the backbone of China Eastern mountaing range. I have since realised why that emotional reaction. It looks incredibly similar to the mountains of Provence, the Cevennes north of Nimes, where my grand father stems from; the Alpilles, by the Rhone river, marking entrance to the Mediterranean rim; the Southern Alps, separating France and Italy; the Appennine, which I crossed many times going from florence to Bologna.

I Often speak of the parallel between China and the Mediterranean. Two sophisticated, old civilisations, both convinced of standing at the centre of the earth. Joyful, warm people. Centres of literary cultures. Elaborate merchant cultures. An eye for beauty. This landscape, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, is the physical counterpart of this more diffuse sense of alignment. And whenever I pass by, watching the mountains from the train window, I sense the depth of my connection to China. 

I felt it more broadly, during this trip, in the Hutongs of Beijing, where old people pull out chairs into the street at night and spend time enjoying the fresh air, greeting neighbours as they pass by, gossiping, playing cards, like my grand parents used to do when I was a kid. It brings back the warm, quasi-magical world of my holidays in provence, where life was happier, warmer, more social. Where you could stand outside the door, where people knew who you were, and the nights smelled of jasmine flower. This I fiound on the streets of Beijing. And as I head south to more metropolitan Shanghai, I feel as if I’m getting back to working life, leaving holidays, warmth and family behind.

Getting a job

Last night I went to an event organised by Melbourne Business School. I joined their mentoring team this year, and attended a plush session of ‘facilitated networking’ with other mentors and mentees. It was intended as an opportunity for students to learn and ask questions, and practice their ‘networking skills’. 

Mentors were assigned to a cocktail table, and stood there, while students rotated for ten minutes at a time. After the third rotation, I started asking the students what their key learning was from that evening. Many spoke of tips about interviews or CVs. I then came up with a question that I systematically started asking everyone: ‘after graduating, do you want to get a job, or start a business.’ Just to get them thinking.

Interestingly, most of them said they thought of starting a business, but wanted to get a job first. To gain experience, they said. I didn’t let it stand and, very soon, a keyword kept appearing: fear. Starting a business was scary,getting a job seemed safer. So we spoke about fear. 

I realised for most of them, it seemed to be a novel thought – that the main block to your carrier may not be the lack of a skill or the wrong choice of major, but an emotion holding you back. And that they could – and maybe should – address this emotion as such. In other words, that the solution to fear is not learning how to write a better CV.

I suggested exotic methods, self observation, stepping straight into a cold shower, watching horror movies. They giggled,  but I think their thinking shifted, even if ever so slightly. 

Not all of them. One resisted. They were not going to start a business. They studied economics, and had it all figured out. Their problem was a choice of major – the bankers in the room said so. They majored in economics, they should have picked accounting. From their knowledge of economics, they knew that we were in for a bad turn. And so their goal was clear – land the job, and save their ass. That was also one of the only white guys in the room. Surely they won’t be stepping straight into a cold shower, watch horror movies, or self-observe today. 

On ‘busy’ – a dialogue

– It’s been over a month since I last wrote here. I started the year committing to daily practice. But things changed. I started a new role, and have found myself unable to continue, for a while at least. I got busy.

– Hey, I’m catching you here. Weren’t you the one mocking ‘busy’ people earlier? See – now you’ve become busy, like the rest of us.

– Wait a minute. I had a moment of weakness, true, but I think I’m getting out of it.

– OK, so you were busy, now you’re not, what happened?

– Well, here’s a thing I understood. Last week, a friend said the following thing, he said: “I’ve got so much to do! It’s not that there’s anything complex or difficult I have to do, but there’s a lot of small tasks, and I haven’t found anyone who could do them for me fast enough, so I have to spend a lot of my time.” Funnily enough, the previous day, I had lunch with another friend who said the exact opposite: “It’s not that the things I have to do take a lot of time,” she said, “technically, I could do it all very fast. But everything is so complex that I have to spend a lot of time thinking about all the details and the consequences.” They’re very different situations.

– OK, so you found out there’s two types of busy – which one are you then?

– You didn’t quite get my point. I still think ‘busy’ means disorganised, and I think neither of my two friends were actually ‘busy’. One had a lot of small things to do, the other a lot of complex things to think about. But as I said before, I did become ‘busy’ during the last few weeks, and I think I just got out of the hole today. Hopefully, I learnt something in the process.

– I like the honesty. Tell me what you learnt.

– Well, this is what I think happened. I started a new role, in a new field, with new people, working on a new project. There’s a lot I have to understand, new relationships, new strategies, new concepts. Meanwhile, there’s a deadline to the project, and I felt I had to start moving before I could get the full picture. That’s how I became ‘busy’.

– So what you’re saying is, ‘busy’ means moving forward with no clear sense of direction.

– I guess that’s what I’m saying. ‘Busy’ can be be triggered by many small things to do, or it can be triggered by complexity, but in essence, they’re different things. ‘Busy’ is an emotional state of restlessness that makes you start anxiously shifting from one action to the other. Yet none of these actions really feels like a step that gets you closer to the goal – rather, it’s as if the goal was shifting with each new step. It’s not a pleasant state to be in, and if you’re not careful, it can easily start feeding on itself. ‘Busy’ may be one of the circles of hell.

– But you said you got out of it, right? What did you do?

– I guess the most interesting is not how I got myself out of it, but how I realised what was happening. I’ve always trusted my intuition to make decisions, especially when I’m dealing with complex things. If there’s more factors to consider than I can hold, and I have to take a course of action, I believe it’s a wise thing to let my brain detect a pattern.

– But when you’re running around trying to do seven things at once, it’s hard to find a pattern.

– Exactly. Here’s how the sequence unfolded this time. I saw myself getting into a state of emotional confusion, and I took it as an alarm signal. So I downloaded a mental health app called ‘Supebetter’

– I’ve heard of ‘Superbetter’

– It’s cool. I followed some of their suggestions – chugged a glass of water, walked around the block, danced in my room. It helped, but it didn’t fundamentally change anything. One particular suggestion, though, felt incredibly appealing. The app recommended: ‘engage in a hobby’. It resonated with me. I went to the Myer Toy shop, bought myself a world-map puzzle, and started working on it.

– Random

– Maybe, but that’s how things fell into place. Maybe my brain was looking for a solution, and it needed the puzzle to cristallise. It did feel like instinct. Anyway, over the last two days, I spent quite a lot of time on the puzzle. Continents emerged on the floor as I put the pieces together. But they formed independent islands, and I wasn’t sure where to place them in relation to each other. Then this morning, I found the piece between Europe and America – a narrow strait of ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland – and connected the various parts. I looked at the map in front of me, now forming a whole, and I had a flash of emotional insight. This was precisely what I’d been struggling with in my new role – I was trying to find out how the various components fit together, but more broadly, what I needed was to connect them with the rest of my life, and figure out the shape of the whole picture. Suddenly, it felt as if my body had found its balance. I felt a pattern emerge. I couldn’t put it into words, but the restlessness evaporated, replaced with calm and confidence.

– So you’re essentially saying, to get out of ‘busy’, you should stop and relax, and things will get better.

– Maybe that’s all it takes, and let the body finds its bearings. At least it worked for me. Now I’m back to writing in this blog, and I’m even experimenting with form.

– Well, wait until you start work again tomorrow, and you’ll see whether that was an actual shift, or just you feeling better after you got a break.

On Burning Man – European vs American models of innovation

I recently had this conversation with two friends in Melbourne, both involved in ‘innovation circles’. They were talking about the ‘Burning Man festival’ in the US – ‘It’s fantastic, they build a city from nothing in the middle of nowhere in, like, a week.’ – ‘It’s a fantastic experience,’ commented the other, ‘it’s very free.’

I asked, playing a naive European – ‘What exactly is burning man?’ and they explained – surprised but tolerant of my apparent ignorance. Burning man is an American Festival held in the desert, consisting of parties, concerts, art exhibitions, etc – it lasts for a week, and people build an entire city for the occasion – including a complete airfield – then leave nothing behind. The culmination is the burning of a large wooden sculpture, hence the name ‘burning man’.

To them, this festival embodies the essence of innovation: do something new and radical; occupy a new space, and create something where nothing was. To me, it evoked memories of a friend from the Cevennes, a quiet mountain area where the tour de France passes every year. ‘We hate it,’ she said, ‘people come from the city, they’ve got no idea how village life works. We’ve had people camp on our lawn, and break a full branch off our cherry tree – to them, it’s nature, they can do that. They’ve got no idea it’s our garden, and we’re taking care of it.’

I shared this story with my Melbourne friends, and for the first time, articulated this idea: that our understanding of innovation is largely informed by an American experience of space – as open land, free for the taking, offered as a blank page to the pioneering spirit. But to continental Europeans like me – and probably Chinese people for that matter – space is never blank, it is already inhabited by old cultures, groups, communities tending it in multiple and sometimes conflictual ways. Innovation is not about ‘setting up a city in the desert’, but bringing together these disparate, misaligned individuals, for some temporary work of collaboration

On sitting and standing

Why have we chosen the sitting position as a modern default?

Last night, I went on a long walk to the beach, and today, I decided I would stand to work. And so I did, at home first, while I focused on tw0 simple tasks: learning how to use Endnote, and sorting old folders of research documents. I put my laptop on a fat book, the book on a stool, the stool on a table, and I stood in front of this improvised platform all morning, happily typing. Result: no sore shoulders, and a nice feeling in my stomach that I got a wee bit more toned.

The slogan of 2014 was ‘sitting is the new smoking’. It might echo still in other ears than mine. But as public places used to favour smokers over non-smokers, our social environment is entirely designed for sitters.

We may hold a fake belief that special artifacts are required for sitting, chairs, couches, or stools, while we can stand on our own two feet. Not so. I sit on the floor whenever I can. And if you stand and read, eat, or type, you want a space to lean the book, plate, or laptop. But not often will we find such standing set-ups, and so, defaulting into the shape that our environment proposes, we sit.

After I finished my morning work-from-home, I headed to my second office, in the QV food court. The place has been recently redone, and has very comfortable tables and chairs where you can sit for a whole afternoon without any cover charge. But there are only three tall tables where you could stand and rest a laptop, hidden under the main escalators, opposite the BreadTop bakery.

One of the tables was free. I pushed aside the white metal-mesh stool, set my computer on it, and stood for a couple of hours, drafting the outline of my thesis. Then I headed back one, and went on a long walk to North Fitzroy. And as I did, I spoke with my partner about replacing a large, red armchair in our living room with a standing station. It would certainly change my daily routines, inviting me to stand for breakfast, maybe dinner, or when friends come over.

But even as I can perfectly visualise the piece of furniture that I would need, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a friend’s place, I have no clue where I could buy it, or what its name would be. So much we made sitting our default posture.

 

From resources to character

Language can bug you badly.

There’s one thing I could never take my head around: it’s that newspeak habit of talking about ‘resources’ rather than ‘people’ or ‘time’. ‘We’re under-resourced’ is a lamentation I hear frequently, but really, what does it mean? Is it that whatever project is conducted does not have enough people on it? Is it that managerial models are heavy, so that a given goal takes longer to reach than it should? Is it that every person in the team has, literally, so much to do on a daily basis that they cannot physically keep up, things don’t get done, and the whole fabric collapses? Or is it a polite way to say ‘disorganised’ and ‘a bit lazy’.

My Asian friends are not tender with Australians. As a Hong Kong friend once said: ‘Australian, you know, they’re bit lazy sometime’. More polite mainland friends will talk about how ‘relaxed’ everyone is, with an ironic snarl. Even as a Frenchman, I’m often appalled at how slow things can be here.

And so, I started thinking back on my reading of the French moralists, at a time before corporate newspeak, and when people could be held accountable in other ways. What if ‘resources’ was not the problem? What if the problem was character, accountability? And what if we tried systematically calling things by their concrete name – and replace ‘resources’ with ‘people’ or ‘time’ whenever possible. Maybe this would bring up better thinking.